ZOLA: A Lurid, Floridian Odyssey

Writer/director Janicza Bravo impresses with this creatively told tale

It started with a tweet.

“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

Which was followed up by 147 more. Together they formed what came to be known as, #TheStory. Told by A’Ziah King (aka Zola), the tale took on a life of its own and become internet legend, and now a new feature from A24. One that perhaps is the MOST Florida movie ever made.

It all begins with a fateful encounter in a diner. Zola (Taylour Paige), working as a waitress, encounters Stefani (Riley Keough), a customer in her section. The pair quickly hit it off, connecting though their evening work as exotic dancers. Their bond is solidified by the flurry of texts that follow, and an evening together on the town. Within days, Stefani invites Zola to join her on a road-trip to Tampa to work one weekend in a strip club with the promise of a major payday. With her boyfriend’s (cajoled) blessing, Zola finds herself with her new friend in a car heading to Florida, accompanied by Stefani’s dim and downtrodden boyfriend Derrek (Nicholaus Braun), with the enigmatic X (Colman Domingo) at the wheel. After a successful evening at the pole, Zola is confronted with X’s real role, as Stefani’s pimp. With Derrek sidelined, Zola is pressed into partnering with Stefani as she goes to work, and an uneasy weekend in Florida unfolds.

A few hours on the road to Tampa and the warning flags are there. That initial friendship and chemistry, gradually replaced by side-eye, skepticism, and scrutiny. Shifting plans, evasiveness, casual and overt racism, and that’s while they’re still in the car. As the reality of the situation sinks in, Zola’s attempts to extricate herself provokes a shift in X’s temperament. The threat is not just to her physically, but her moral self too. She lives by a code. No private dances, and she sure as hell isn’t prostituting herself out. Staying at arms lengths as Stefani gets to work, Zola is unable to suppress her instincts, stepping in to not only shield Stefani, but also get her a better deal too. This blurring of the lines adds to the chaotic energy, already fueled by their surrounds and encounters: a motley collection of customers at the stripper club and in the hotel room, “gangbangers” (in both senses of the term), sexual escapades, and the threat of an Amazonian associate of X (Sophie Hall as a deadpan delight). This is all on top of the growing friction within the group as Zola tries to stand her ground against an increasingly aggressive X, and Derrek’s heart is broken as he discovers his girl is up to her old tricks again. A wild and often bizarre roundtrip, it’s enthralling entertainment. There’s a feel of something Lynchian at times, not just visually, but more-so the menace. A sense of unease palpable in a story that perpetually feels on the precipice of something going horribly wrong.

Paige is assured in the lead role, a straight (and savvy) performance to her shifting surrounds, holding her poise with little flits of fear and understanding as she events unfold. She works in crucial softer, nurturing elements even as Zola holds her resolve while mired in this situation. Keough has been a standout the last few years, excelling in The Girlfriend Experience, Under the Silver Lake, and The Lodge. For Zola, she tackles a tricky role, a character who has adopted the affectation of a black persona. The accent, hair in cornrows and liberally using racist slang, it’s on a similar wavelength to the character she played in American Honey, albeit more amped up. It’s a real reflection of how appropriation of culture continues by the less informed and those wanting to integrate and ingratiate. Keough combats the egregiousness by adding a naivety to her, helped by fleshing out the character with her role as a mother, and as someone clearly under the thrall of X. Fresh from stealing scenes on Succession, Braun continues in a similar vein as the hapless Derrek. Clueless observations, a bit of slapstick physical comedy, and a sweet nature make you sympathetic to his plight. Rounding out the vibrant quartet is Coleman Domingo as the Nigerian pimp who captivates with his beaming smile whether it is coupled to a chill, or chilling sensibility.

Director Janicza Bravo, along with co-writer Jeremy O. Harris, ensure that Zola stays true to its origins. Not just in terms of the surreal and disturbing nature of what happened (from one POV anyway), but also in terms of the part social media had to play. From bringing these people together, making further connections and opportunities, causing pain, offering comfort, it drives events forward. Bravo and editor Joi McMillon build energy as the film flits around, at times taking on the feel of an Instagram scroll. Send tweet and message alerts become a constant background noise. It all feels ingrained into the production, not a superficial filter laid over the top, making for a lively and creative experience. Shot on 16mm by cinematographer Ari Wegner (the sumptuous In Fabric), Zola achieves a dreamy aesthetic with a layer of grain, giving the film a hazy, Floridian sheen. The cherry on top is a mesmerizing score from composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie)

There will be people who see Zola and laugh and cheer throughout, and there are certainly moments worthy of that. But as a whole, the film is more complex, much of it tied to a place and a culture, especially with regards to POC. Entertaining and yet morally dubious characters, farcical situations with darker moments that leave a lingering sense of unease, and a deft commentary on social media combine for an off-beat tale that keeps you off-balance. The real standout though, is the assured direction from Janicza Bravo, adding a hell of a flourish to this lurid and enthralling odyssey.

Zola hits theaters on June 30th.

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